Monday, December 31, 2007

Light meals

Yesterday we decided to have an advance New Year's celebration dinner with my parents, leaving today free to PARTY!!! We'd had a rather filling meal at my aunt-in-law's house at lunch time, including a wonderful Black carrot halwa which I'm going to try out asap and blog about, and was totally awesome. Keeping our full stomachs in mind, mom and dad cooked up a great but light meal for us.

That included my favourite starter - salad - with mom's famous vegetable dip. This is a scrumptious dip of which no amount is enough. In fact, yesterday I got to thinking what all we could use it for, including as a sandwich spread, among other uses, or even with hot baingan pakoras. It also works well with kids who can scarf down any amount of crunchy fresh veggies or toast with this spread on it. My kids were in seventh heaven with salad, which they love, and a dahi-based dip.


Mom's famous yoghurt dip
Ingredients:
1 cup hung plain home made curd/ yoghurt
1 cup paneer, finely grated
Handful dhania( coriander) leaves, chopped fine
1-2 green chillies, chopped fine
Salt to taste

Just mix all the ingredients together and chill before serving with batons of crisp radish, daikon, carrots, baby corn, tomatoes, halved cherry tomatoes, lightly steamed broccoli and green peppers, raw yellow, orange and red bellpeppers and spring onions or leeks. Dad had also added lettuce as the base for the vegetables, marinated in apple-vinegar. Delicious!


Now that's a positively reeking-with-health type of last entry for the year. Just in time for me to go hog-wild partying tonight. See y'all next year!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Vegetarian kebabs

I first discovered I enjoyed cooking when we went to France. Before that, for years mom had tried to teach me how to cook, considering it an essential lifeskill, but I was too busy being a feminist and wondering why only girls needed to learn how to cook. The fact that my dad and all my uncles are ace cooks didn't once enter my mind. So I learnt to cook a couple of things ( you have to, if you want to impress a guy, regardless of how 'liberated' he is. For some reason, they consider cooking only slightly less impressive than nuclear fission.) Cakes and cookies, Hyderabadi dahi wadas, rajma and chole...things which couldn't have counted as a meal but worked nicely as accents and took the spotlight.

In France, it was a case of necessity. Vegetarian me was not too impressed at being confronted by an array of 'ghaas-phoos' ( green leaves) for lunch at the college canteen every day. And the health freak and weight-watcher in me wanted to be careful around the spread of cheeses, breads and desserts. So I had no choice. I had gone armed with a bunch of Tarla Dalal books, some recipes of mom's that my sister had written down and I got photocopied, a Hawkins pressure cooker, a Sumeet mixie and a few spices. Mom had even gone to the trouble of drying out curry leaves in the microwave and packing them for me, as well as a year's supply of saaru and huli pudi. I also learnt to surf the net ( google wasn't around yet) and download or print out recipes of dishes I particularly loved, like Bisi bele bhaath. During the course of the year, while whipping out an array of dishes, from khatte baingan and haak to vangi bhaath and even trying my hand at kodbale, I realised what a wonderfully cathartic and yet creative experience cooking can be. The entire chain of work - from the physical - chopping the vegetables into precisely sized pieces - to multitasking - setting the rice on one hob and stirring the sabzi on another to creativity - figuring out which spices to use or substitute - had the simultaneous effect of stimulating and calming me down. I soon found myself indulging in a cooking orgy before every set of exams, while A would lie on our bed and observe the ceiling.

We got back to India in time for Eid, and I volunteered to make the veg kebabs. My Inlaws have always had an open house on Eid, welcoming all their friends regardless of religion. Naturally therefore, the menu has to be a mix of veg and non-veg items to fulfil tradition as well as fill all their guests. Typically my MIL would make dry chholey and aloo tikkis for the vegetarians, while mutton kebabs would be made for the non-veggers. Biryani and plain rice would be available for anyone who stayed to lunch, along with her yummy Seviyan, which I have still not mastered.

MIL was a little uncertain of my cooking ability so she whipped up the tikki mix and kept it in reserve just in case. I had come across an intriguing recipe for kebabs made out of Chholia - green chickpeas - which always abound in the winter and decided to try that. It took a bit of work, but the kebabs were so delicious that even the non-veg guests gulped down as many of these as the non-veg kebabs. Thanks to Jiggs Kalra, if I remember correctly, the veg kebabs were the surprise hit of the day. Now we often have them in the winter since I love chholias and want to use them as much as possible in their all-too-brief season.

Chholia Kebabs
2 cups green chickpeas
1 grated red onion
1 inch finely minced ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 inch stick cinnamon
1 tbsp coriander powder
1 tsp cumin powder
2-3 green chillies, finely chopped, or red chilli powder to taste
1/2 cup hung plain yoghurt
Salt to taste
Bread crumbs
Oil for frying

Put a little bit of oil ( 1/2 tbsp) on to heat in a wok. Add the coriander and cumin powder and cinnamon stick and then the chholia. Cook until the chholia is partially cooked and turn off the heat.
Remove the chholia from the pan, and cook the onion, ginger, garlic until well browned.
Mash these along with the chholia until finely blitzed.
Mix with the hung curd, salt, chillies/ chilli powder and bread crumbs, checking to see if the mixture holds its shape when moulded into a ball. If not, add more breadcrumbs.
Form the mixture into ping-pong sized balls and pat them flat.
Heat oil in a frying pan.
Shallow fry the kebabs on low heat until well-browned and crisp on the outside. They will remain soft and moist on the inside.
Serve hot with sweet tomato or mango chutney and green coriander chutneys, or as a side-dish with rotis and dal.

Soups

'Tis indeed the glorious season for soups and salads here in Delhi's winter. The days are warm and sunny but the evenings grow dim early and by six at night, it feels like much later. It's quite cold, particularly once you cross the border into Haryana, with a minimum of 11 degrees C considered a warm day.

Veggies, as I have said before, really come into their own in the Delhi winter, and the sheer variety and quality of veggies we get is nothing short of heaven for foodies. Moreover, the cold weather makes it easier to munch on something, unlike the oh-so-hot Delhi summer which just leaves you gasping for water and more water. There's nothing like peeling and baton-ing a crisp white mooli ( daikon) or juicy red carrot, then sprinkling chaat masala and a squeeze of freshly sliced lime on top and downing it, out in the warm afternoon sun. I have to admit, my mouth waters every time I see a roadside vendor of mooli and gajar but sanitary considerations have unfortunately crept into my ageing mind and so I disconsolately try the same thing at home which never has the same zing. The veggies are followed by a square of chikki or Revadi. Chikki is roast groundnuts encased in a jaggery syrup, and chikki is the same thing made with white sesame seeds and sugar instead of jaggery. Both considered 'heaty' according to Ayurveda and therefore apt for cold weather. Endless cups of hot adrak ( ginger) chai or Kashmiri Kahwa are also welcome in this weather. Somehow, come winter, one doesn't think of pakoras - those seem to belong more to the monsoons.

I find it interesting how food and the veggies and fruit are arranged by nature to suit the body's needs - and a little sad when I think how easily we city dwellers in easy reach of supermarkets neglect the rules. Heaty vegetables in winter - mostly from the 'gas' sy family - cabbage, cauliflower, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, daikons and carrots. Cooling things in summer - watermelon, melon, tinda, tori, lauki, cucumber - all veggies and fruit with a high water content.

As part of my little bit in winter comes the great soup and salad push. Not that my family object, since they are all, from A down to Puddi, big fans of veggies. So last week I whipped up a delicious pea soup with a dash of green leafies (since I'm a big fan of green leafies), and over the weekend, a lovely, sunshiny pumpkin soup served with salsa with a twist to heat up the innards.

Jade Soup
3 cups of podded peas
1 red onion, sliced
1/2 inch ginger, peeled and sliced
Pinch Mace
Knob of butter
Small glug of good olive oil
2-3 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
1 cup of spinach leaves, cut into fine ribbons
Salt and pepper to taste
1 litre soup stock or water

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the ginger and onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent.
Add the peas and a quarter of the soup stock. Let it come to a boil and then cover and cook until peas are cooked.
Blend finely and put back in the pan. Add the rest of the stock and the salt and pepper and let it come to a simmer. Add the mace and simmer for five minutes.

Meanwhile, on another hob, put the olive oil to heat. (Use plain olive oil, not extra virgin). Add the slivers of garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned. Remove from the oil and add in the spinach ribbons. Cook at high heat, stirring occasionally, until they are crisp.

Before serving the soup, assemble by topping each bowl with a little of the garlic and some of the crisp spinach ribbons. You can add a crisp salad of daikon, carrots and winter tomatoes topping with salt and a dash of lime juice on the side for a light meal. You could also use crisp fenugreek (methi) leaves instead of spinach for an interesting twist.

Sunshiny Pumpkin Soup
1/2 of a well-ripened pumpkin ( about 14 inches in diameter), cut into two, with the skin on
2 whole garlic
1 large red onion, sliced
1 litre soup stock/ water
Good quality olive oil
Salt
Red Chilli powder ( use cayenne if required) to taste

Salsa:
1 tsp cumin seeds/ cumin powder
1 tomato, very finely diced
1 green bell pepper, very finely diced
1 small red onion, very finely diced
1/2 ripe tomato, grated
1 tsp caster sugar
1 tbsp plain vinegar or lime juice
1 green chilli, finely sliced ( reduce the chilli if you want it less spicy)

Pour a glug of olive oil into each half of the pumpkin and pop into a preheated oven at 250 degrees for about an hour to roast slowly. Pour a glug of olive oil into each garlic and wrap it up in the foil and add it to the pumpkin.

Meanwhile, pound the cumin seeds, if using, into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle. I always prefer to freshly powder the cumin because the aroma is so much nicer. Mix together the diced tomato, green bell pepper, green chilli and onion, add the caster sugar, powdered cumin and lime juice as well as the grated tomato pulp and put away in the fridge.

Once the pumpkin and the garlic are well-roasted, scoop the roast pumpkin flesh out and peel the garlic. Heat some olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and cook the sliced onion in it until translucent. Add the pumpkin and garlic and cook for a further minute. Let cool.

Pulp the pumpkin-garlic-onion mix finely and add back to the saucepan, along with the soup stock. let it come to a boil and then turn down to simmer, adding salt and chilli powder to taste. Let simmer for five minutes.

Before serving, top each bowl of soup with a spoon of the salsa. The nice, deep heat of the salsa is a good counterpoint to the honeyed thickness of the pumpkin soup, and the crunchy vegetables add a refreshing texture. I also like to add a dash of coriander leaves to the salsa to intensify the freshness.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Eating out

Haven't food-blogged for a while, what with the camera being on the fritz, and then me being sick with a terrible viral, which left me UNABLE to TASTE!. Can you imagine anything worse for a food-crazy person like me? I was craving for some fresh, home made soup too, and didn't even have the strength to crawl out of bed. Have started hating the readymade soups ever since I discovered the home made stuff, so couldn't take substitutes, especially when my tongue was already making everything taste like cardboard. However, almost back to my old self, and in the interim have been eating out lots, to compensate myself.

Last Tuesday I was in Ahmedabad on work - which is where I fell sick - and wanted to make sure, apart from shopping for Ahmedabad sarees, that I ate authentic food. My cabbie took me to a place called Pakwan for lunch. I haven't a clue where it is located in the city. it's a relatively small restaurant, and very unpretentious. As soon as you sit down, they bring you a thali, and then start heaping things on to it like food was going out of fashion. A round pakora and plain, white dhokla for starters. followed by a papad and a variety of chutneys - red and sweet, green and tangy - and pickles. Salad. Then the sabzis - undhiyo, which is veggies and beans cooked together in a specially Gujarati sweet-sour-salty way that is sublime. Thin daal. Aloo in gravy. "Punjabi" as the waiter called it - paneer, but with a local twist that made it taste nothing like restaurant paneer dishes in Delhi, and most delicious. Moong Dal halwa. Gujarati Kadhi. Srikhand. All this deftly served by a stream of specialist bearers, each one responsible for one category of dishes. Followed by an array of tiny rotis, the size of a palm, piping hot, smeared with ghee. And teeny, tiny puris, golden and puffy, giving off steam. They served the food faster than I could eat it, hospitably urging me to have more. No sooner did a dish finish on my plate than the bearer responsible for it would materialise at my elbow to refill it. It took a positive effort on my part to convince them eventually that I did not want more. I needed two glasses of the salty chaach (buttermilk) to wash it down. The bill - Rs. 85. Need I say more - or will this picture help? ( Gah, bluetooth as usual not working so will have to upload later.)

Pakwan, somewhere in Ahmedabad.

This weekend, like most people, I made a pig of myself. The first event was our 7th anniversary - no, not itching, as yet. thanks to my being ill, we had been unsure of whether we'd be able to go out at all, and eventually left it too late for a Delhi which has suddenly woken up to Christmas as a celebration. Olive, our first choice, was all booked up. Another place, Magique, quoted the obscene amount of Rs. 5000 per head. Diva was too far on a possibly foggy night, plus it might have been equally as expensive. Finally we decided to head for old faithful Trident Hilton, which also has the advantage of being merely minutes away from home.

This hotel was apparently rated the best business hotel in the world in 2005. I don't know about business, but I will say, as someone who's visited a lot of famous hotels around the world, that this particular hotel is magical. It has the rare ability to take one right out of the world around the hotel and transport you to an enchanted place of the imagination. The architectural firm which worked on it was apparently a Thai one. Rather than simply recreate Indian architecture, they decided to take the essence of Indian architecture. So the hotel has a series of sandstone arches starting right from the entrance, beautifully lit up by dramatically tall sconces. The scale of the building is magnificent, adding an air of lavishness and drama. As soon as you enter, you see a corridor of arches stretching away towards the right and left, sporadically lit by spotlights that throw intriguing pools of shadow and light. in front is an infinity pool, reflecting the night sky, and in the center of that pool are a row of flames, reflected in the water below. The door handles are serpentine bronze curves, again larger than life. The ceiling inside the double-or-treble-height lobby is a cupola, painted in gold leaf, while the interiors are largely whites, beiges and creams. The hotel ensures that the flower arrangements placed in the lobby are equally dramatic. The night we were there, they had 2-coloured roses, deep pink and ash-grey on the same bloom.

The buffet spread at the coffee shop of this hotel is always wonderful, and has become our favourite place to take guests out. They have a sumptuous salad buffet on one side, serving a spread ranging from sushi and salmon to asparagus, hearts of palm and, I believe, truffles in season. They also have a gigantic parmesan wheel, so one of my favourite salads is the lightly steamed asparagus with a french dressing with the hint of sugar, topped by shavings of parmesan. Yummmm! They also have a pretty good cheese board, from Brie to camembert, roquefort, gouda, emmenthaler and mozzarella.

The center is given over to a live pasta and pizza station. A stack of desserts awaits us on the right side, and in the far corner are the main courses, lined up by veg versus non-veg. The main courses keep changing and have a mix of continental, oriental and Indian dishes. A variety of rotis is served up at the table.

I usually gorge on the salads, which I can never have enough of. This time, a decided to dig into sushi and decide whether he could decipher the mystery of its appeal. He came back to the table armed with wasabi paste and pickled ginger. He carefully selected his sushi roll, delicately spiked it with the wasabi and took a bite. the next minute, he jumped up as if something had stung him. "It's gone up my nose, it's gone up my nose...!"

I had to try this too, so tentatively picked a veg sushi roll. I had tried these before and been underwhelmed. I dabbed on the pale green wasabi paste a little more aggressively than A - after all, as a South Indian born, I had better tolerance for spice - and popped it in. I jumped up like something had stung me too. "It's gone up my nose, it's gone up my nose...!" Now I know! But luckily, unlike our mirchis, the stinging wears of pretty quickly. I thought wasabi curiously reminiscent of mustard in its pungent action, and my sinuses felt better for that little dose.

I had mainly Indian food, for once, for the main course, and dessert was a wonderful Ghana chocolate mousse - all cold, meltingly mushy chocolate cream dusted with cocoa powder on top and soft yet sandy chocolate cake on bottom - like a kind of symphony.

We had ordered a French sparkling wine - something asti - with our meal but found it way too sweet for our palates. the guy had told us it's a sweet wine but I didn't realise quite how sweet. It reminded me of those Californian fruit wines with which dad had begun our initiation into wine way back when I was 16. There are some things that are good only in memory. We sadly hadn't thought to taste before the wine steward poured out the glasses of wine, but later decided to order something we liked better. I chose the Sula Sauvignon Blanc - somewhat fruity and delicious with Indian food - and A picked the Chenin Blanc.

The service was wonderful, as always, while being unobtrusive. They even served us a hot pizza at our table ( which they usually don't do) which had come out of the wood oven seconds before - unbeatable. And they didn't charge us for the wine we had disliked. As usual an amazing couple of hours, and all the more reason we keep going back there.

Trident Hilton, Gurgaon

Yesterday was our day to hang out and do fun stuff. We took in an art exhibit at the Habitat centre - Indian contemporary artists - with the theme of Sacred. Jayasri Burman, Shuvaprasanna, Sujata Achrekar, Shipra Bhattacharya, a couple of wonderful pieces by an artist called Sonia Sabharwal, some beautiful Bharti Prajapatis, two very intricate and appealing pieces by Ramesh G (something, can't remember) and an absolutely haunting Radha by Suhas Roy.

After that, it was off to Khan Market - one of my favourite markets, and becoming more appealing to me by the day. We decided to eat at the Big Chill - a cafe frequently recommended to us by friends. We had a sparklingly fresh rocket salad with parmesan, cherry and sundried tomatoes. Eschewing soup for once, Chubbocks and I shared a baked potato with sour cream and chives, something only otherwise available at TGIFs. I don't know how they had done it, but the potato was delicately salted, so it went all the better with the cream and chives. I was busy mulling over a low-cal version for home, with hung curd instead of the sour cream. We had pasta for lunch - I and Chubbocks sharing a spaghetti puttanesca, while A opted for a fusilli with chicken. The Puttanesca sauce was spicier than I remembered, with broken dried red chillies and spring onions in it. Delicious, and Chubbocks enjoyed the process of learning to twirl his spaghetti round his fork and reeling it in, while liberally smearing the sauce all over his little face.

Chubbocks had a Banoffee pie for dessert - something which I had only read about in my Nigella cookbook, and which remained an indelible memory from Love Actually - Keira Knightly bakes it for her husband's best friend as a peace offering. Interesting mix of toffee with biscuits, cream and bananas, but I much prefer the bananas and chocolate combination from the crepes I invented when I worked at a French creperie one summer.

A and I shared a trifle for dessert - with rum custard and cream - a far cry from the trifles I remembered. I haven't had this since the birthday parties I used to attend as a kid, and since I was expecting that, was a bit disappointed with this. I still remember what a big thing it was when my mom learnt how to make this and served it at her party. A layer of sponge cake, soaked in juice, topped with custard ( Brown and Polson powder type, not the kind with eggs), topped with fruit and then jelly, which molded the whole structure together. How careful we were, the first time we saw this tri-coloured confection on our plates, to slice all the way down through all the layers so you got the tastes of everything together in your mouth. Little bits of jelly would always get left over in the bowl, along with small smears of the wet cake, and my sister and I would prise it out with greedy fingers, gloating over the ruby slivers of raspberry jelly.

The sour taste and smooth, cool texture of the jelly would contrast with the warm, vanilla scented gooeyness of the custard, followed by the bland sweetness of the sandy cake crumbs. The fruit would be carefully chosen for contrast - bananas for their sweet, mushy ripeness balanced by sharp, sweet-sour oranges and garnet-like pomegranate orbs. The colours too would mingle wonderfully well, and the dish was always made in a wide but deep glass bowl ( sometimes borrowed from a neighbour), so one could feast on it with the eyes first. The cream and brown of the cake at the foot, followed by the Amul-butter coloured custard, the cream, orange and ruby-red of the fruit and then the dark, glassy redness of the Weikfield jelly - always raspberry or strawberry, never something like orange or lemon which would fail to impart the necessary touch of glamour to a humdrum Delhi afternoon party.

Big Chill, Khan Market, New Delhi

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Good Old Tomato Soup

There are some dishes which are classics. Tomato soup is one of them. No matter where you have it or how it is made, you can't really find fault with it, and it will always appeal to your palate in some way. However, for some reason, my tomato soups never do turn out well and I'm baffled at getting stumped by this simple little dish.

This weekend was a cold and grey one in Delhi. It looked colder than it was but it was pretty cold all right and I haven't as yet recovered from my bad cough and cold problem of last week. Naturally, then, soup had to be on the menu. I wanted to make one of my favourite hearty soups - a thick pumpkin soup with salsa and sent out my husband and the driver separately to get the pumpkin. Alas, both of them got this pale, watery, unsweet looking pumpkin which was only good for sabzi, not soup-making. What to do?

Then I had a brainwave and decided to adapt the recipe in my own way. I had bought lots of plump garlic pods last week from the supermarket, so into an aluminum foil they went, with a dribble of good olive oil. I thought - why not experiment with roasting the tomatoes, since the ones we had to home weren't too juicy, more the fleshy kind which makes better salad/ spice. So the garlic and tomatoes were popped into the oven and roasted away all afternoon while I was busy with some work I had to carry home. After roasting for a good 45 minutes, the garlic gave off a yummy odour and the tomatoes were nicely charred.

Since I had to rush out to office in a few minutes, I peeled the tomatoes and garlic and just blitzed them together. A nice, thick liquid emerged which was surprisingly garlic-odour free, though my hands sure weren't. There was some red wine vinegar on the counter, so I poured in a splosh of that. The dry white wine we'd had with dinner Friday was also still lying on the counter, so that got added into the mix. Into the saucepan, to bubble, bubble toil and trouble until the house was redolent with the fragrance of simmering tomatoes.

Served hot with freshly ground black pepper, this was - honestly - the best tomato soup I've ever had. Wow, I impressed myself! Of course, fried croutons would have added the icing on the cake but weight-watching me isn't having croutons at the moment :(


Do try this soup - it's perfect to warm up a grey and hazy winter day.


Ingredients:
2 whole garlics
8 tomatoes
1 red onion, roughly chopped
Handful basil leaves
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp dry white wine
Salt and pepper to taste


Wrap the garlic in aluminum foil, with a drizzling of good quality of olive oil. Put into the oven to roast along with the tomatoes for about 45 minutes, until the tomatoes are slightly charred and the garlic is soft and squishes right out of the wrapper.


Pour a glug of good olive oil into a heavy bottomed saucepan. Add the torn basil leaves and the onions. Cook until the onions are soft, then add the tomatoes and garlic. Cook together for 2-3 minutes and remove from heat. When cool, blitz into a fine puree.


Pour back into the saucepan and add 750 ml water or stock ( I used water). Add the wine, sugar, salt and vinegar and let it come to a boil. turn the heat to simmer, and let it simmer for 5-7 minutes.


Serve with freshly cracked pepper, and if liked, some basil leaves for garnish.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Beans Soup

Dunno why, but I always find recipes that use beans intriguing. Many of them of course use beans that I have no clue about and it's interesting for me to try and decipher which exact bean they're talking about or to substitute what the recipes used with what I have available and see which works better for me. Down South, in Bangalore, one gets all kinds of different bean varieties, available fresh, peeled or dried up, and I'm always after my folks to bring me back some when they visit Bangalore.

Early this year, we had headed out to Himachal Pradesh on a (relaxing) family holiday. The owner of the place we were meant to be staying at insisted it was a mere five hour drive, so we set off for a 3 day break. Only to realise that far from 5 it was a 9 hour drive, with the last 2 hours or so among ba-aad, narrow mountain roads. Poor A, who drove our car, said his legs were vibrating for the next week, since he also got stuck with driving us back. Anyway, I always like to explore the local markets for new fruit and veggies and while we were there, I discovered some lovely white beans( picture will follow tomorrow). They looked so buttery and silky, how could I resist? So I lugged a good two kilos back and have been using them on and off for diverse purposes.

Now that winter's here and I read on Tigers and Strawberries about her bean and green soup, I thought, why not try that? Of course, I forgot to copy the recipe to take home ( and now y'all know what I do in office!), so wound up inventing my own version. My son, Chubbocks, insisted on helping me make the soup, which I'm all too happy with, so the greens in the soup and the tomatoes and carrots were all added by him. Sure made it taste nicer! It was actually pretty much a meal by itself, with a chunk of bread on the side.

Bean Soup
Ingredients:
White beans ( well, whatever you want to put in), soaked overnight and boiled until well cooked but firm
1 red onion, sliced
4 spring onions, chopped including the greens
1 bunch of chopped whatever greens - spinach, fenugreek...I had Bathua so I used that.
4 garlic pods, chopped fine
2 carrots, sliced
2 potatoes, diced
1 tomato
Handful coriander leaves, minced
Juice of half a lemon
Pepper and salt to taste
1 tsp jeera ( cumin seeds)
1 tbsp olive oil ( or some veg oil)
1 litre water/ stock

Put the jeera in hot oil in a large, thick bottomed saucepan and let it turn toasty.
Add the sliced and chopepd onions and garlic and saute until pale brown.
Add the tomato and stir, cooking until soft but not mushy.
Add the potatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until somewhat soft.
Add the carrots and cook until soft.
Add the greens and cook until slightly wilted.
Add the water/ stock, beans, salt and pepper to your content and bring to a boil. Then turn down to simmer for 10 minutes while you toast bread or whatever.
Top with the coriander leaves.
Put in a squeeze of the lemon juice into each cup just before serving.

I had to improve on perfection, so I added a dash of Ranjaka ( see November blogs), to add a touch of dare-devilry to the soup. Yum...!

Monday, December 3, 2007

JFI December - Toovar Dal

Of all the dals in all the world...Yup, Toovar/ toor/ arhar dal is my favourite. Perhaps it's my South Indian genes - after all, saaru, huli, kootu and a host of other dishes in Karnataka cooking use this unassuming dal to make their point. Madhur Jaffrey refers to this dal as Pigeon peas, which is kind of cute, I think, and I believe it is also known as the Congo pea - how nice.

This humble dal is an excellent source of protein and has a mild taste which works very well with whatever combination of spices and vegetables one chooses to throw at it. Flexible, easy-going, wholesome and up for anything - if it were a person, I'd want to get to know it! So when I heard the December theme from JFI of Toovar Dal, it was like, 'Welcome home, my friend.'

There are gazillions of ways of cooking Toovar Dal ( even though, in my early culinary career, I have been known to confuse this with chana daal. Oh the shame of it!), including a sweet and simple dal which we often have on our 'simple food' mood days - Just cook the dal, add a chopped onion and tomato and a little ginger, sauteed in a little oil with jeera seeds, fresh green chillies and a sprig of curry leaves. Add salt to taste and a spoon of sugar, and a topping of fresh, chopped coriander leaves - and a perfect little accompaniment for the roti or rice is ready in a jiffy. If you want an added variation, just squeeze the juice of half a lemon before serving.

But when I really want to make the toovar dal the centrepiece of the meal, then I have to reach for my formidable arsenal of cookbooks and leaf through them, trying to figure out which one suits my mood best. One terrific dish is the Gujarati Dal mentioned in Tarla Dalal's Gujarati cookbook, and I love the combinations of flavours and the textures this dish has - sweet, sour, chilli, soft, mushy and hard. Again, it goes equally well with rotis or rice, and as always, I have jiggled around with some of the ingredients to suit my palate better. I can almost hear Ms. Dalal's stern aunty voice in my head as I follow ( or not) the instructions. Her cookbooks are very instruction manual type, but her recipes are never fail ones, so while I may not curl up in my armchair reading them to myself, they do tend to get used a lot in the kitchen, which explains the liberal sploshes of turmeric and bits of green dhaniya decorating their pages.

I whipped this up on Sunday morning for our Sunday meals, and we had enough left to pack off with my husband for his office lunch on Monday. How efficient!

Gujarati Dal
Ingredients:
2 cups toovar dal, cooked in 4 cups of water and mashed until soft and mushy
1 cup chana dal, soaked and cooked in 2 cups water
1/2 kilo yam ( suran), skinned and cut into large pieces and boiled lightly with salt
1 tomato
8 pieces kokum, soaked in water
50 gms jaggery
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp jeera
4 small round dried red chillies
1 sprig curry leaves
4 green chillies, split
1 inch ginger, finely chopped
2 tsp asafoetida ( heeng)
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp turmeric
2 cinnamon sticks
1/2 cup raw peanuts
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Salt to taste
1 tbsp ghee
1 tbsp oil

Heat the oil and ghee in a deep saucepan.
When hot, add the mustard seeds. When they stop popping, add the jeera, green chillies, cinnamon sticks, ginger, turmeric, red chillies, curry leaves and asafoetida and stir to saute.
Add the tomato, stir and cook until soft.
Add the kokum, the lemon juice, turmeric and the jaggery and cook for a few minutes.
Then add the dals ( including the water they were cooked in - suit yourself as to how much water depending on if you like your daals thick or thin), yam, peanuts, salt and chilli powder and stir to mix.
Simmer for 10-15 minutes.
Serve hot with rice or rotis, with a cool cucumber salad, plain home made curds and a beans palya for the perfect meal.

My substitutions:
Don't like boiled yam, and had an embarassment of drumsticks ( sojne) at home, so used that instead
Don't like Chana dal much so omitted that.
Didn't have round red chillies so used the long ones.
I have to confess, I have followed this recipe to the T the first time I made it ( with the omission of the boiled yam), and it tasted equally good with my omissions and substitutions.

PS. As always, the photo sucks, even though I did take it in daylight, this time. Guess I just don't have a good trigger hand!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

In The Bag


I'm a huge fan of chocolate and chocolate desserts, especially those that preserve the decadent qualities of chocolate - melting, oozy, molten brown. Chocolate mousse doesn't do it for me - the chocolate dessert has to be warm to bring out the essence of the intense chocolate experience. Of course, that doesn't mean I didn't try to make chocolate mousse - that was one of the first desserts I tried making from scratch after we moved into our home. We were entertaining some close friends and I wanted to show off my newfound cooking skills. That, naturally, would be the day the refrigerator chose to conk off, so by the time they came, the mousse was chocolate sludge!

I found lots of yummy chocolatey recipes in Nigella Lawson's books. I really enjoy Nigella Lawson's food writing - it's more sensual than a lot of romantic literature out there! I love the way she describes food and the pleasure that she evokes in the entire process of selecting, preparing and cooking the food, and then eating it, of course. The first book I ever bought of hers was called How to be a Domestic Goddess - and I swear to you I almost inhaled it. If only the desserts could come to life, without my having to put any effort into it...One of the most interesting and exotic-sounding, for me at least, was the Chocolate Chestnut Pudding. I did try roasted chestnuts in Switzerland once, after having read so many lyrical descriptions of them by British authors writing about France, and was quite disappointed. Nope, not my bag. But in a cake? Hmm...

I tried this out last year as a special dessert for A's 40th birthday. I thought my usual cakes - Black as midnight or Crazy Cake - were a bit too regular for this, and I wanted a recipe rich in taste as well as experience. I went down to INA market specially to buy chestnuts - that's one market where you will get the most esoteric of ingredients ( esoteric from the Indian PoV) - wasabi paste, walnut oil, fresh truffles, Boursin and what not. The cake itself...it's not really a cake, it's more like a Bomb, so devastating is the experience of devouring it. Its fragrance is deeply redolent of the best things about chocolate. The texture is crumbly and yet moist. And the flavour is so densely chocolatey, that if you're a chocoholic, you will finish the entire thing before offering so much as a smidgen of it to other people. We served it to some close friends who came by on A's birthday - they literally picked each and every crumb off their plates and begged for seconds!

I went down to INA market some time back and got about a kilo of chestnuts that I pureed and put away in anticipation of this cake. I had been waiting for an occasion special enough to make this - A's birthday again seemed like a cliche. Finally, we have a couple of friends from the US who're visiting us on Friday, and they are major chocoholics, so that serves as the occasion.

A word about these two - they are such chocoholics that when they went grocery shopping in France, they typically bought about half a kilo of chocolate to last them through the week! Not only that, but on the fifteen minute walk home from the store, they would have demolished half their stock!!! PK - the female half of the pair - and I finally decided at one time that we had to lose weight, so we went on the GM diet. PK's husband, MK, is of the infuriating never-put-on-weight persuasion. We were hanging around at her house, sadly eyeing our cabbage soup, when MK disappears into the next room. "Don't come in for the next few minutes", he calls out. Well, saying that is like putting a match to gunpowder so PK couldn't resist. She tiptoed up to the room and put her eye to the keyhole. Guess what? MK was busy polishing off a tub of chocolate mousse, which had apparently been calling him from the fridge for quite a while. Being a gentleman, he didn't want to tempt PK off her diet!

Last night, I set to and made the cake. It's sitting there in a tin, eyeing me evilly and saying, "So...you think you won't finish me off before Friday? We haf vays to make you eat..." Lord give me strength!
Chocolate Chestnut Bomb
Ingredients:
435 grams chestnut puree
125 gms unsalted butter, softened
6 eggs, separated
250 gms best dark ( but sweetened) chocolate (softened)
50 gms caster sugar
20 gms light muscovado sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp dark rum
Pinch salt

As always, didn't have all the ingredients, so went along and improvised. Also, have done the best in terms of photography, what with my meagre camera skills and the morning light which is harsh as opposed to lambent - but do, please, do try making this cake. You'll never regret it!

In a deep bowl, mix together the butter and the chestnut puree until well mixed. Then add the vanilla, rum, the egg yolks and the chocolate and blend until well mixed.
In a separate bowl, beat the whites of the eggs with the salt until foamy. Add the caster sugar gradually, and continue beating until the peaks are stiff and glossy. Scatter the muscovado sugar on top and fold in until well mixed.

Working confidently, fold the egg whites into the chocolate-chestnut batter, one third at a time.

Pour the batter into a 22 cm Springform greased and lined tin. Bake at 180 degrees C for 45 minutes ( or thereabouts). The top of the cake will have cracks in it, but who cares - it's meant to look that way. Cool on the rack for 20 minutes. Before serving, dust icing sugar on top and make sure whoever you're sharing this with is already in the room. Otherwise, all you'll have to show for your efforts is a pile of crumbs and a tiny brown smear on your chin!

I improvised with:
Kahlua instead of dark rum
2 tsp vanilla
Brown sugar instead of Muscovado which I don't know what it is and can't find easily here

Soften the chocolate by blitzing it in a microwave for 2 minutes - works like a charm. Ditto the butter, but for 1.5 minutes only. I use an electric beater for all the beating and folding - my biceps can't take the manual experience. Also, for novices - folding means to move the beater through the batter in a figure 8. It allows more air to come in or some such.

Also - am all thumbs when it comes to wrapping anything - I always claim the gifts we give at birthday parties and so on are wrapped by my 4 year old. So lining a round tin with a sheet of rectangular wax paper - well!!!But since it was a Springform ( again, for novices, a cake pan in which the bottom is detachable so its easier to pop the cake out. Just push upwards from below the pan and...whoops, the cake is on the floor and the rest of the pan is hanging off my arm like a giant's bracelet! Ok just kidding but it could happen.), I wrapped the bottom plate in wax paper. I put two pieces of wax paper into the cake pan so they overlapped at the edges, curled over the top like pie crust, and hung out of the hole at the bottom. Then I stomped the bottom plate into the pan and hey presto, the wax paper was stuck in place!

This blog is my entry for In The Bag, hosted this month by A Slice of Cherry Pie

Breathing choked!

We had some foreign visitors to entertain at work, so I booked a table at Dum Pukht - the Maurya's first 'brandname' restaurant, and probably one of the first in India. Dum Pukht came up years ago - in the 80's, I think, and created one of India's first 'master chefs' out of Imtiaz Qureshi. The restaurant has been popular ever since, which is quite rare for a restaurant, especially in faddy Delhi. The Maurya is also home to another landmark restaurant in Bukhara - a frontier cuisine speciality restaurant, which has been on the list of top 10 restaurants in the world as well. Maurya is also anecdotally the best in terms of sheer hospitality and guest service. So clearly the Maurya knows what they are doing. Perhaps indulgence comes naturally to them, given their key business is in cigarettes:)

The cuisine at Dum Pukht is Lucknowi and Nawabi at its best. The food is delicately and complex-ly spiced but not spicy as in flambe-your-tonsils. Dum Pukht cuisine essentially is the art of slow-cooking food in a sealed clay-pot - the food is prepared, spiced and placed in the pot, which is then sealed off with dough, and then slow-cooked. The steam is not allowed to escape ( the words literally mean to choke off the steam), and the food cooks in its own juices and aromas. Legend has it that the origin of this style of cooking dates back to the 1700's and the days of the Nawabs of Lucknow. One benevolent nawab, at a time of famine, began the construction of the Bara Imambara in Lucknow to provide employment for the starving people, and asked for them to be provided with food. His chef came up with the concept of putting the rice, meat and veggies, along with spices, into a large clay-pot with live coals on top and the coalfire below. It was a simple and elegant way of serving hot food at any time and making it a one-dish meal. One day, as the pots were being unsealed, the Nawab who was passing by noticed the extraordinary aroma and asked to taste the dish. The chef who came up with this is supposedly Imtiaz Qureshi's ancestor, and so the secret passes down from generation to generation. These Nawabs are the same who apparently catalysed the invention of the Kakori kabab, so quite a foodie bunch!

I always enjoy eating at Dum Pukht, only it costs an arm, a leg and other body parts, so I usually have to wait for official occasions. The food was wonderful, and mild at the same time. We ordered the hara kebabs, with spinach and cashews, for starters, followed up with Dum kakori, Murgh Qorma, Arhar Daal and Baingan-Mirchi ka Salan, with rotis. The restaurant served complimentary butter rotis which were the epitome of sinfulness, so soft and yielding were they. The Vegetable Biryani was good too, though not particularly outstanding.

As a vegetarian, I only had the daal and baingan but that was enough. the daal was wonderfully spiced, with just the right aromatic mix of jeera and garlic. I wonder how they do it - we make this at home all the time, and I don't remember it as being specially flavourful on most occasions. The Baingan-mirchi was made of small purple eggplant and large mirchis, which luckily were mild. The flavours went extremely well together, and now I want to learn how to cook that dish.

But more than the food itself, I was impressed by the exquisite service. I dropped my fork, and before I could say anything a replacement had arrived. The waiters took care to point out the more spicy dishes to our french guests so they were forewarned. At every point in the evening, we only had to look up to find an attentive waiter at the elbow, yet they were never obtrusive.

A meal for four, with a glass of wine each ( Grover's La Reserve, chosen by our French visitors!) came to about Rs. 7000, not counting taxes. Expensive but a wonderful experience, and definitely worth a re-visit...

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Onion Soup

I had the lovely papad soup I mentioned in my previous post, and when I got back home on Sunday, was flooded with the desire to make a clear but spicy soup - something brown in colour, to approximate the soup I'd had. But I didn't want to repeat that so soon. I dug out my trusted soup bible and started poring over recipes. Many of them were complicated - not the thing for a Sunday night experiment. Many of them sounded like I might not like them - though I may be mistaken. Then I came upon good old French Onion Soup.

I have always found this soup intriguing. Very few restaurants in Delhi offer it, for some reason - maybe because most of the ones we frequent serve Italian food? Before I knew what went into it, I used to be suspicious of the bread floating inside, because most of the times that I've had this soup at a restaurant, the taste hasn't been very clear and I've even mistaken it for poached egg, which I hate. One family friend who often visits Delhi in the winter made it for us last year as a special treat, because she had some lovely Gruyere for the toast, and it was wonderful.

I had wanted to try making this at home for ages. We had just bought a stock of 3 kilos of onions, and I just loove onions. And it would be a great excuse to open a bottle of white wine which could then be commandeered for other purposes...As always, I had to slap and dash with some of the ingredients. For instance, I didn't have sherry vinegar, so I made do with red wine vinegar. I didn't have Gruyere for the toast, so I had to substitute with strong English cheddar and hope the tastes wouldn't conflict. The recipe called for yellow onions, which we don't get so I sunbstituted with red, and just reduced the quantity a little since they taste stronger. Since I made it at night, the photos look like nothing on earth, and I know the soup won't be around until I have the time to photograph it in daylight, i.e. the weekend, so you'll just have to accept my opinion that it looked like restaurant FOS.

It did take quite a long time to make the soup. The cutting up of one kilo of onions itself occupied a good half hour, by the end of which everyone in the house had streaming eyes ( didn't want to go through the hassle of peeling, then soaking and so on). I got the time to finish a couple glasses of wine by the time I was done stirring and browning, and hoisting my daughter, the Puds, up in my arms, because she had developed a violent case of separation anxiety and refused to move a millimeter away from me. I gotta admit, if I had known the soup was going to take this long and so much supervision to make, not to mention that the two kids would be screaming through most of the process, I might never have gotten myself into this. A harrowing time, in fact, but made up for by the wonderful, rich and complex taste of the soup. The Puds finished a whole bowl of it by herself!

FOS
Ingredients
1.2 kgs yellow onions ( If using red, use only 1 kg), julienned
1 tsp Thyme ( or a few leaves if using fresh)
1 tbsp caster sugar
2/3 cup dry white wine
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
Salt and pepper
1.5 litres water/ stock
Big knob butter ( I love recipes which call for butter. I feel decadent just reading them!)

Use a heavy bottomed pan - my non-stick wasn't thick enough.

Put in the knob of butter and let it melt. Add the onions and thyme, and stir to coat them evenly with the butter. Cook on really low heat until they turn soft.
Add the sugar and sherry, and cook on a slightly higher heat, stirring occasionally, until they start to turn brown and turn even softer than before.
Turn the heat up higher, and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are nicely browned.
Meanwhile, heat the water/ stock ( in my case water with 2 stock cubes) on another burner until hot.
When the onions are deeply browned ( a caramel colour), add the wine and stir.
Add the hot stock to the onions and let it come to a boil.
Turn it back to simmer for a good 15-20 minutes.
Add salt and pepper to taste.

Meanwhile, spread some slices of good baguette with a bit of butter and sprinkle cheese on top.
Before serving, pour the soup out into individual bowls.
Put the baguette slice, cheese side up, one in each bowl.
Put the bowls under the grill until the cheese turns melty and the bread looks toasty.
Serve hot.

A great winter meal. If I'd had a nice salad and a warm apple pie to go with it, I'd have been in heaven...

Monday, November 26, 2007

Jaipur

Last weekend I got to visit Jaipur on work. Now, we live close to Jaipur, so we have visited it on various occasions. I remember once, years back when A and I were in the same ad agency, we had gone on an office trip to Sariska, the wildlife resort. Of course, we didn't get to see any wildlife apart from Nilgai and a lonely Iguana. But we did hear leopards at night, and the guide came and scared us by saying that sometimes leopards climb into the trees surrounding the place where we were staying and drop into the grounds for a nocturnal prowl. The bonfire suddenly felt a lot colder, I can tell you.

One of the highlights of the trip was the amazing Rajasthani food we got. The place really laid out a spread for each meal, with puris and aloo ki sabzi, dal baati churma for lunch and so on. Ever since then, it has become a strange obsession for A and me to try and have some authentic Rajasthani food on our jaunts to Jaipur.

I have had plenty of Marwari food over the years thanks to a couple of close Maaru friends - gatte ki sabzi, ker sangri, suhaalis and what not, and have learnt to cook quite a few traditional dishes too. Interestingly, a couple of Marwari/ Rajasthani dishes are found all the way down in Karnataka as well - aambodey ( dal wadas) is one of them, and the other is pheni - no, not the cashew liquor but a lovely, lacey cobweb of flour and ghee, eaten with powdered sugar and cardamom and a glass of warm badaam milk. This is typically served at kannadiga weddings and is one of the signature dishes. Imagine my surprise at finding it in Rajasthani cuisine too!

Much to our disappointment, on our last several trips to Jaipur, we hadn't been able to find a place that served good authentic Rajasthani cuisine. The Rambagh Palace serves things like laal maas - authentic, I'm sure, but no good to veggie me. Everyone in Jaipur will tell you helpfully, when you ask about authentic food, "Go to LMB". LMB = Lakshmi Mishthaan Bhandaar. So to LMB we went the last time, full of anticipation, mouths watering and all that. Only to find a menu full of chholey bhaturey, paneer and maa ki daal. The only remotely Rajasthani thing they had was a ker sangri ki sabzi. How annoying!

Actually this is part of a trend I'm seeing in many of our cities, where the authentic cuisine of the place is reserved for home cooking, and all you get at restaurants is what the locals like to eat, i.e. Punjabi, italian, south Indian and what not. Some years back you couldn't get a good Maharashtrian meal in Bombay, short of breaking into someone's kitchen, except for the vada pau and Zunka-bhakr at railway stations. It wasn't until Vimla Patil of Femina fame opened Viva Paschim in the late 90s that one got a feel for the regional cuisine. And now Oh Calcutta by Anjan Chatterjee is promising to do the same thing for Bengali food. This is a trick I feel Indian restaurants are missing out on, in their quest for the exotic. You get Japanese, Greek, Korean and Russian, but where's the authentic regional cuisine of India? Chettinad or Assamese food would be as exotic for the Delhi-ite as sushi, surely.

Anyway, to recommence where I had trailed off...this time too, I bet that I would only get to eat bloody paneer and makhani daal, and was bracing myself. I reacted with shock and disbelief when I saw that LMB had announced a Rajasthani Thaal - yes, with the words daal baati churma boldly mentioned. I promptly took myself off to LMB in hope and anticipation, even while the part of me that cringes when food expectations are let down was getting ready to start yelling its head off. LMB is a rather upmarket restaurant for the Jaipur local, though the prices are very reasonable ( the thaal is Rs. 250). It's bang in the heart of the Hawa Mahal market ( tip to visitors - enjoy the view of the Hawa Mahal but do not go inside - it's disappointing, to say the least!) - which I would classify as India's traditional version of a mall. The market is built out of characteristic and lovely red sandstone, and is in an H shape, with traditional gates at the start and the finish. The shops are laid out along the length of the H and each section specialises in merchandise - one has jewelry, another has clothes, a third has seeds ( why?) and so on.

The service at LMB is wonderfully warm and attentive - you do not have to wait long to be seated or served. The Thaal started with a spicy papad soup, which I'm going to have to try out at home. It also had bits of dried vadis floating inside and was richly peppery. The food included missi rotis and rice, daal ( bland moong dal, unfortunately, not the spicy, garlicky one my tastebuds remembered from nearly fourteen years ago), baati - dough balls fried and full of ghee, one of which was stuffed with peas and cashews, 2 kinds of churma, which is wheat flour wellroasted in ghee and served with fine sugar blended in, ker sangri, gatte ki sabzi, Rajasthani kadhi, roasted papad and a wonderful sweet-spicy vegetable which I didn't recognise but relished. I was thankful I had had a light lunch of a few pieces of hara kebab, as this meal required a fairly gargantuan appetite to be done justice to. Unfortunately the host who had lent me his car needed it back for an emergency so I had to rush through the meal rather than savour it. But I came away triumphant in my quest to at last have authentic Rajasthani food in Rajasthan - and of course with a packet of kachoris and pheni in tow!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

One Dish Meals

Usually, through the week, I'm lucky enough to have someone who does the cooking for us. Of course, often on weekends, I like whipping up a little something in the kitchen. but then there are the times when I'm not really in the mood, with a mad weekend of errands or worse, some work left over, and my cook is unwell or has other commitments. Those are the days when I have to perforce cook, and typically those are the busiest days as well, when I want to make something that gets done without too much effort and yet tastes good to kids, hubby and of course, foodie me. Of course, the better alternatives are there too - eat at my parents' place, for instance!

However, to resume, on days when I need a fast yet nutritious meal, I turn to the vast repertoire of rice dishes from Karnataka. Some of the veg combos are ones my mom whipped up or came up with, given the veggies available up north, and some are traditional but all taste good! I usually keep vangibhath powder on hand, making once in 2-3 months or so, and it stays pretty well if you don't add the dessicated coconut, which sometimes can turn rancid and give off that oily smell. So all it takes is to cook up some fluffy Basmati rice, and assorted veggies, add the powder and some tadka, mix it up and dig in!

Here's a couple of plates I made up a few weeks ago:


Peas and fenugreek greens ( Methi-matar) with rice, served with Beetroot or cucumber Tzatziki.
This works very well with kids, particularly the beetroot tzatziki because the zingy fuchsia colour, spiked with the fresh green of coriander leaves makes for an intriguing looking accompaniment. VangiBhath Powder
Ingredients:
Handful Chana Dal
1 tbsp Urad Dal
1 tbsp coriander seeds
5-6 dried red chillies
Handful dessicated coconut
Pinch Heeng ( Asafoetida)
1 inch piece of cinnamon bark
Handful curry leaves

Roast the chana dal in a bandley (wok), using very few drops of oil. Keep aside to cool and roast the urad dal in the oil left over. Keep aside to cool.
Roast the coriander seeds and the red chillies until the chillies turn shiny and give off a warm smell.
Roast the cinnamon bark, curry leaves and the heeng for 1-2 minutes and remove from heat. Put the dessicated coconut into the warm pan and let it roast a little in the remaining warmth of the pan.
Grind the ingredients together finely. Add a little turmeric and mix well. Store in an air-tight jar for upto 2 months. If storing for longer, do not add the dessicated coconut - that can be added each time you make the dish.

Prepare the garnish:
Heat 2-3 tsp oil and add 1 tsp black mustard seeds. When they explode, add curry leaves and about 15-20 cashew nuts broken into quarters. When the cashews are browned, the garnish is done.


Assemble as below:
Make fluffy rice ( about 1/4th cup uncooked rice per adult for flavoured rice dishes).
Add vegetables - the usual suspects include 2 inch long, thin slices of eggplant ( Baingan) , cucumber, diced medium, tinda diced large, methi and matar ( fenugreek greens and fresh peas), green bell peppers with cucumber or eggplant, or by itself with fresh peas. The vegetables need to be cooked in a typical Karnataka tadka - 2 tsp oil with mustard seeds. pop the cut veggies into this after the mustard seeds have exploded, and let them cook until well done.
Top the rice with the vegetables, and heap the Vangibhath powder on top ( to taste). Add the garnish and salt to taste.

Mix well, ensuring that the vegetables, salt and spice mixture are evenly distributed through the rice.
Serve hot or at room temperature with raita/ Tzatziki on the side.

Beetroot Tzatziki
1 beetroot, grated ( raw)
1 red onion, chopped fine
handful coriander leaves, chopped
1 cup yoghurt ( home made curds)
1-2 green chillies, chopped fine
Salt to taste
Mix all the other ingredients together and top with the chopped coriander for contrasting colour.









Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Spice it Up!


It's difficult to remember that chillies are not an inherent part of Indian cuisine and that in fact they came to us via the colonists, through South America. They seem so integral a part of our cuisine that it's hard to think of a savoury dish that doesn't use them. When we were in France, we used to find it very hard to find fresh green chillies ( really?), and chilli powder doesn't work for everything. So one day I decided to pick up these interesting looking chillies from the neighbourhood LeaderPrice - they looked like tiny little lanterns, with a pointy tip.

I was making Baingan bharta for dinner, so along with the eggplant, I roasted one of these - no point roasting too many before we know how spicy it is, I thought. We sat down to a rare meal of roti ( heated pita bread), masoor ki daal and bharta. One bite of the bharta and my husband and I were taking turns to stand under the kitchen tap and wash the volcano off our tongues!It turned out to have been a habanero - the spiciest chilli on the planet. Suffice it to say I handled it with kid gloves thereafter - using upto but not more than a 2 millimeter square!

I'm a moderate chilli-eater at the best of times, and don't really enjoy dishes which are too spicy. But a family friend from Pune used to send us a bottle of her Ranjaka - that's chilli chutney or an indian version of sambol - every year, and I was hooked onto it. It's been a while since she has sent us any, contact with Pune not being all that frequent. So a couple of weeks ago, when I spotted plump, juicy red fresh chillies at the mandi, I had to buy some to try this out for myself.

It's a rather simple recipe, and the result is as fiery as it looks. But it does go rather well with rotis, idlis, dosas...even buttered toast. Last week I added a spoonful to Stone Soup which completely changed the character of the soup - yummy.

Ingredients:
250 gms fresh red chillies, with the stems cut off
2 tsp roasted fenugreek seeds
5 tbsp lime juice
Salt to taste

Just put everything into the blender and blitz to a fine pulp.

If you want the chutney to be fiery but not blow-your-head-off, try slitting the chillies and removing the seeds, as well as soaking them in cold water for half hour.
I unfortunately didn't and so have a large quantity of searingly hot chutney ( unfortunate because my husband and son won't even touch it) - which still tastes darn good. I actually roasted the chutney in hot oil for about half an hour, after I tasted the first output, which seems to have marginally mellowed the heat a bit. Not as explosive as the habanero bharta but about a 7 on the chilli richter scale!


Hey I bet this'd taste even better with garlic added to it - gotta try that next time.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Down Home Breakfasts

There are many things I love about Karnataka food - the spices, the freshness, the fact that most of the food is not heavy - but what I enjoy most of all is the breakfasts. Give me a good Karnataka breakfast and the rest of the day goes incredibly well. The uppittu, the sajjige, avalakki, the set dose...but what really tantalizes my palate and imagination is akki roti. I don't know why but since childhood, this has been a particular favourite of mine.

We used to typically get this for breakfast when visiting family in Mysore. Somehow mom rarely made this in Delhi when we were kids. Later on, after I started working and mornings were less frantic, she used to make this every once in a while, especially when dad had got fresh green beans from Bangalore, and I always loved it. It got into my repertoire when I got married, particularly because rice flour was easily available at the grocery store in Fontainebleau.

Akki rotti is best had crisp, with a yummy coconut chutney or Ranjaka as an accompaniment. We've carted these handy eats with us on a very long driving holiday to Switzerland, and they came in very handy on stretches where we found no veg food.

Ingredients:
2 cups rice flour
Handful freshly grated coconut
Handful chopped coriander leaves
2-3 green chillies if liked
2 tsp jeera (cumin) seeds
1 red onion, chopped finely
Salt to taste


Mix the ingredients together with a little water to make the dough. Be conservative while adding the water, because this flour soaks it up pretty fast so it's all too easy to end up with a sticky, slushy mess ( and I speak from experience!)

Keep a wide bowl full of water handy on the side.

Take a fistful of dough and form it into a ball. Put the ball of dough in the middle of the frying pan, and using your fingers, press the dough out towards the corners of the pan.


Try and get the roti as thin as possible so it turns out crisp. Warning - your fingers will start to hurt a little bit, but all in a good cause! (The rice flour is too brittle to lend itself to rolling, hence the need to press them out). Occasionally dip your fingers in the bowl of water to keep the dough from sticking to them.

Once the dough has spread out, make 3 holes with the tip of your finger in the middle of the roti. Put the pan onto a hot stove and cover it with a lid that seals it off tightly. Cook under cover for about 2-3 minutes, and then remove the cover. The roti should be looking steam-cooked by now.



Dribble a few drops of the oil into each of the three holes, and taking a bit more oil in a teaspoon, run the teaspoon around the outer edges of the roti. Cook on a medium-high flame, turning over occasionally, until the back is nicely browned, and there are a few brown patches on the front.

Serve hot with traditional Karnataka coconut chutney. You can add fresh, lightly steamed green beans to the dough for an even more traditional touch.




Now the chutney too is a work of art, in my opinion. I hate the typical coconut chutney served at restaurants, particularly outside the south. They basically consust of ground up coconut and a bit of salt.

Homemade chutney - now that's the real thing, with taste and zing. It's so delicious I could eat a bowlful by itself, and it's the icing on the rather bland cake of idli or dosa. Neither idli nor dosa have the same savour when served without this accompaniment.

Ingredients:
1 fresh coconut, grated
1 lime-sized tamarind bit soaked in hot water
1 inch ginger, peeled and chopped
3-4 green chillies
Handful coriander leaves, chopped roughly
Handful Roast chana, peeled ( bhuna hua chana)
Salt to taste

Squeeze the tamarind into the hot water so all the tart juice runs out. Strain the tamarind juice into your blender. Add the rest of the ingredients, and half cup water. Grind finely, adding a little more water as and when needed. Top with the Garnish, and serve with idli, dosa, akki roti, uppittu, plain chapatti and whatever else takes your fancy!

Garnish:
1 tbsp oil
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp urad dal( white)
1 red dried chilly
Handful curry leaves, washed and dried
Pinch heeng ( asafoetida)

We had akki roti with this wonderful chutney made by dad for breakfast on Saturday. The weather was lovely - warm but with a cool breeze, so we ate out on our balcony, which has mediterranean-style stucco white walls and orange flooring. The balcony looks out into a jacaranda tree, and beyond that a lawn with frangipani trees, so it was the perfect place to enjoy a lazy breakfast. We wound up with traditional filter-kaapi supplied by dad again ( we don't go for coffee much at our place) while watching the two kiddos run around and play - Gar firdaus bar rue zameen ast, hameen ast, wa hameen ast, to paraphrase Babur!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Karnataka snacks

(NB: Do not adjust your computer screen/ glasses - this picture is blurry!)
At our recent Eid party, we had ordered and served aambode ( pronounced aam-bo-day) with the drinks and they were quite a hit. We also packed and sent some off to a family friend in Aligarh who is a great foodie. She immediately wanted to know how to make them, and what they were and all that, so this post is specially meant for Mrs. Ahmed.

At my parents home, aambode is typically made on festival days - either Dussehra, Deepavali or Ganesh Chathurthi. It is served along with the main meal, as an accompaniment to the saaru-anna or the vangi-bhath. Its flavour blends wonderfully with Karnataka kadhi ( majjige huli), and sometimes I like to dunk these in the kadhi or even saaru ahead of time, so the vadas have softened and absorbed the flavour of the gravy. But they are also great as snacks, and a big advantage is that they stay crisp and taste good even when at room temperature so they can be made ahead of time and stored.

Ingredients:
1 cup chana dal, soaked for 15 minutes
Handful fresh coconut, grated finely
1 inch ginger
1 tsp heeng ( asafoetida)
Handful curry leaves
2-3 Dried red chillies
Salt to taste

Coarsely grind all the ingredients together, with as little water as possible. One way to do it is to use the dry grinder instead of the wet one. The old-fashioned stone grinder works really well, if you want to make the effort and have one lying around. The less water you add, the crisper the vadas turn out. The ground dough should have some of the chana dal left whole ( as you can see from the blurry picture).

Form the aambode dough into patties about 2 inches in diameter. Pat them flat - my sister and I like to make them thin so they turn out crisper but traditionally they should be about 3/4 cm to 1 cm thick in the middle.

Heat oil in a wok. Deep fry the patties until nicely browned.

Serve hot or cold with dhania chutney or tomato chutney as a snack.

Pasta treat


The Royal Foodie Joust theme last month is to make a dish combining mushrooms, cheese and herbs. I read the theme too late to enter but the ingredients still got me started on thinking how to use them, and what I would make. The only mushrooms you get fresh here are good old button mushrooms - not that exciting, huh? I debated between various alternatives, including a soup, a simple mushroom au gratin type of thing or even stuffed mushroom caps. For some reason, I was determined to make something using blue cheese, which restricted the options a little bit.

My cousin and his wife were coming over on the first day of the Deepavali weekend, for lunch. This was the first time they were visiting us, so I wanted to make something special for lunch but not anything so elaborate that I would be in the kitchen the whole time. I also knew that they would have a heavy weekend ahead in terms of food so initially I was a bit stumped. Then it occurred to me, partly because I had been trying to come up with a recipe for the Royal Foodie Joust, that I could make a pasta. The sauce could easily be whipped up ahead of time, and the pasta itself would take a few minutes to cook. Accompanied by a hearty salad, some garlic bread and a ginger-cinnamon cake for dessert, it would be perfect.

The sauce was a dressed up version of Alfredo sauce, with heavy cream, Danish Blue cheese, basil and marjoram, button mushrooms and peas, with a few green chillies to add interest. The sweet young peas were bursting with flavour, a good contrast to the sharp tang of the blue cheese, and the green chillies added bite to an otherwise bland sauce. The herbs added layers to the flavour of this sauce, making it an even more complex and subtle tasting one. It was easy enough to make, and worked very well for our lunch guests, so I know I'll be making that again!

Ingredients:
100 gms Danish Blue cheese
1 cup heavy cream
1 small box button mushrooms, chopped fine
1 large red onion, chopped fine

1 cup green peas, lightly boiled in salted water
2-3 green chillies
Handful basil leaves, torn roughly
1 tsp dried Marjoram
Salt and pepper to taste

Pour a small glug of good olive oil into a saucepan.
Put in the basil and marjoram when the oil is hot, and then add the onion.
Cook until soft and translucent and add the green chillies and mushrooms.
Cook for a few minutes until the mushrooms turn soft.
Turn the heat down very low and add the blue cheese.
Wait until the cheese is almost completely melted and add the cream.
Whisk the sauce together until well mixed.
Add salt and pepper to taste.

Pour on top of a pasta of your choice. I would have preferred fettucine for this sauce but we had run out so I used wholewheat Penne rigate which also worked well. This makes enough sauce for 6 people.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Decadent Food

Lots of different types of food come to mind when one thinks of the word decadent - chocolates, caviar, wine, champagne - but I bet vegetables don't top the list. Especially a vegetable like the onion. An onion is spicy, flavourful, mild...but almost never an indulgence, right?

Until I came across this recipe for onion soup, that is.

Onions are one of my favourite vegetables, and I used to pine for them back at my parents' home when, during Dussehra, mom would cook without onions or garlic for ten whole days. The food was delicious as usual, but lost some of its savour. I discovered white onions a couple of years ago at the mandi and found them very interesting.

The soup recipe came out of one of my favourite cookbooks, titled simply Soups, Salads and Starters. It's technically meant to be made out of yellow onions but since I don't get that here, I make it with the white onions, and it is a joyous experience - like tasting creamy satin and velvet. Of course, while I say and mean decadence, my innate prudence ( and need to lose weight) make me pare down the amount of fat recommended in the original recipe - that calls for 115 gms of white butter - that's like a small pack of amul butter and more! I use a much smaller knob of butter and sometimes bung in a dab of clarified butter or ghee to add its nutty, sensual aroma. Someday I'm going to live dangerously and actually make it with the recommended amount of butter and see what the difference is...but not now!

Ingredients
1 kg white onions, finely chopped
Knob of butter (about 2 tbsp)
2 Bay leaves
2/3rd cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste
1 litre water/ soup stock
Chopped chives to garnish
Dash lime juice

Put the butter in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan and melt. Add the bay leaves and the onions and stir until they are coated with the melted butter. Turn the heat down to low, cover and cook until the onions are soft but not mushy, and not browned.
Put aside 200 gms of the onions.
To the rest, add the soup stock and let come to a boil. Simmer for five more minutes and then set aside to cool. Take out the bay leaves and puree the soup until well blended.
Put back onto medium heat and add the rest of the cooked onions. Cook for a couple of minutes. Turn the heat low and add the cream. Let the soup heat up but not come to a boil.
Serve hot, garnished with chives, and topped with a spritz of lemon juice.

To go with this last night, we paired a green lettuce salad which was a tongue-tingling contrast - light, zingy and fresh.

I love salads in winter, when the veggies are fresh and crisp, and they form a part of our dinner most nights. We mixed lettuce - torn into bite sized ( and I mean bite sized - I don't like large leaves of lettuce that you have to struggle to put into your mouth) pieces, cherry tomatoes cut into halves, red and yellow bell pepper strips, diced radish, chopped spring onions with their stalks and walnuts broken into halves with a vinaigrette - made with walnut oil instead of oil.

I mixed about quarter cup of walnut oil with a tsp of mustard, a dash of balsamic vinegar, 2 tsp of powdered sugar and some freshly crushed pepper.

The fresh crispness was a wonderful contrast to the silky smoothness of the onion soup - weekend meal heaven!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Veggie delights


I have mentioned before on my blog that one of the great joys of living in Delhi is the changes the different seasons ring in, in terms of what is available to eat. The summers bring in an abundance of fruit - lush mangoes, juicy plums, succulent peaches and the cool sweetness of watermelon and melon. Winter is when the vegetables come into their own and it's the joy of my life to go to the nearest sabzi mandi and shop for all kinds of veggies - sharply astringent amla or gooseberries, whacking big daikon (mooli), fresh green peas and crisp lettuce, red, yellow and orange bell peppers half the price they command in summer, pak choy and purple cabbage, red 'halwa' carrots and orange salad carrots and little plum tomatoes, green garlic shoots, spring onions, leeks and white onions. And of course all manner of green leafies, from plain old cabbage to savoy cabbage, haak, sarson ka saag, methi - one of my favourites and much missed in summer, popeye's favourite spinach, dantina soppu ( a red veiny leaf vegetable), bathua, Kalmi with with its beautifully serrated leaves, fresh dill and parsley...I always spend more and buy more than I plan to. Yesterday I went down to Munirka and came home laden with four large and bulging bags of veggies - for the princely sum of $ 13!
Naturally, then, we had to OD on veggies all weekend. By a peculiar coincidence, we ended up with a Kashmiri slant to much of the food. I only wish it had been a planned slant so I could have added kashmiri dum aloo, which I much prefer over its Punjabi cousin. We had Haak on one night and Khatte Baingan ( sour eggplant) on another.
Haak is also called kashmiri spinach. It looks similar, with rounded leaves and a thick, watery stem, but is a different vegetable, with a slightly soapy texture when cooked. Delhi's well-known Kashmiri restaurant, Chor bizarre, serves up a wonderfully simple dish with haak that I have always loved and we often have it in winter, served simply over hot rice. You can substitute it with Spinach if it's not easily found.
Ingredients:
1 bunch Haak, roughly chopped
3-4 cloves
2-3 green chillies
Yellow mustard seeds
1 litre water
Pinch asafoetida ( heeng)
Salt to taste
2 tsp plain vegetable oil
1 tbsp mustard oil
Put the vegetable oil on to heat. Add the mustard seeds and wait for them to sputter.
Add the cloves and green chillies and stir for a few seconds.
Add the heeng.
Add the haak and the water and salt. Let it come to a boil and then simmer until the water reduces to half.
Add the mustard oil and turn off the heat. Serve hot with plain rice.
Kashmiri Khatte Baingan goes well with either chapattis or rice. I used to have a purely kashmiri recipe for this, but over the years, it has become a bit bastardized, added to by me or my mom. Either way, it tastes great.
Ingredients:
10 baby eggplants with stems attached, slit into quarters till the stem
1 lime sized ball of tamarind, soaked in 1 cup hot water
4-5 cloves
Kashmiri red chilli powder
1 tsp saunf (fennel/ ani seeds)
Small lump of jaggery ( lime sized)
Salt to taste
1 tbsp oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp kalonji ( nigella) seeds
Put the oil on to heat in a wok. Add the mustard seeds and wait for them to sputter.
Add the saunf and nigella seeds and the cloves.
Put in the eggplants and cook them, stirring periodically, until more than half done.
Strain the tamarind water and add it to the wok. Add another large cup of water and the jaggery, salt and chilli powder.
Let it come to a boil and then simmer until the eggplants turn soft and are cooked all the way through.

What we do with the green vegetables, including the leaves of the mooli ( daikon) is to add them to whatever is being cooked - the daal, a soup or even lightly cooked and kneaded into the chapatti dough, even for phulkas. They add a nice flavour and of course, loads of nutrition.